May 15, 2021

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The first three major entries to the series were primarily designed and coded by a man named Julian LeFay, with design and direction from other key people such as Ted Petersen, Vijay Lakshman and Bruce Nesmith. Julian is sometimes referred to as the “Father of the Elder Scrolls”, and although a pillar of the series’ creation, left the company and the project well before the following game Morrowind was released. In the sequels that followed, sacrifices were made for a more hand-tailored world, but the original creators of the Elder Scrolls actually wanted to take the game into a more Rogue-like design with even more expansive, randomized worlds to explore. Although I’m nowhere near a completionist of the series, I have played every Elder Scrolls game released prior to Elder Scrolls Online. From the rickety beginnings of Arena, to the bug-ridden and fiendishly broken would-be gem that was Battlespire, to even the puzzle-solving adventure game Redguard.

Yet the entry to the series that still holds my attention more than any other is still Daggerfall. So what could future Elder Scrolls games learn from their past? Let’s take a look.

Years before the gambling and betting on sports hit true mainstream popularity, especially with its latest entry, Daggerfall was sort of a secret gem that only the hardcore computer RPG players shared and talked about. The reverence for this game is unmatched by almost any other game of its age, and for good reason. Daggerfall had revolutionized and innovated such in-depth computer RPG mechanics that would never truly take hold in any other top rated online casino game to this day. With fantastic series like Baldur’s Gate, Fallout, The Witcher and others yet to come. I know that’s a massive claim, but hear me out.

Daggerfall opens up to what is probably the deepest character creation system ever made for a CRPG. And while you couldn’t adjust the girth of the bridge of your nose, the shape of your iris or the size of your chin like modern games have brought to the table these days, this game did something better… Complete control of your character’s body, talent and mind. While given the option to choose a premade class or to answer a quiz involving moral and personal choices to determine what type of character you’d play, the real meat of the character creation was the custom class screen. After rolling your core stats which governed intellect, physical and social aptitudes, you are given three tiers of skills (primary, secondary and minor) you can fill out with a handful of 35 different choices to choose from and prioritize. In comparison, Skyrim was released 15 years later with just 18 skills.

It also skipped the 8 attributes the series had used prior, and replaced them with the base three meters: health, mana and stamina, as core attributes to further streamline the system. Daggerfall’s plethora of specialties included individual skills for running, climbing, swimming, jumping, multiple sword skills, axe wielding, blunt weapons, dodging, archery, sneaking, lockpicking and medical; and a wide selection of magic schools focusing on illusion, attack magic, summoning, healing, alteration, etc. If that wasn’t enough, there were a host of linguistic skills like speaking to dragons, imps, harpies, merchants, daedra, orcs, spriggans, giants, street urchins, upper class elites and many others.

You can also adjust your reputations, by getting an in with some groups such as nobles or merchants, but you would have to lower your starting repute with others like scholars or peasants. The ability to climb was one innovative feature that didn’t make it past this entry to the series, which allowed the character to try to scale any vertical surface, with greater or lesser success depending on their skill. What you chose for your primary skills would very much define what your character does, as experience was only gained through actual use of your skills, not through arbitrary experience bonuses, quest completions or kills.

Based on your character creation choices, you could level up by merely talking to commoners, arguing with nobility, stealing from merchants or just bartering with them. This in in contrast to the kitchen sink approach that Skyrim took, where every character can use all weapons, magic, armor and stealth — resulting in everyone essentially building variants of a Warrior-Priest-Mage-Thief hybrid. Not only that, there are tons of advantages and disadvantages you can apply to your character, you could make them weaker during the day or night, regenerate health, or make them resistant, weak or vulnerable to effects such as disease, poison and the like.

I’ve even experimented with making a vampire of sorts who would take damage from the sun but is resistant to most other things and regenerates health. There is a sliding scale which grants you quicker or slower leveling, depending on how many positive and negative traits you assign. So you could make a lighter build that will get to a higher level quicker, or a more advantaged build that will be more powerful early on, but will require more skill increases for each level-up. All-in-all, it was easily one of the deepest computer RPG character creation systems ever made.

Daggerfall features a finely crafted world that has inspired a generation to learn about the ancient technologies of the Dwemer, or the mysterious secrets of the Daedric Princes, and the vast lore of Tamriel. There was always a sense of story and myth surrounding each major location, from eerie graveyards to imposing manors, the world had a thick sense of being bigger than you, and had secrets that no single player would fully discover. The massive world with its literally limitless quests helped impress that feeling on its players, in many ways more so than its well-designed but smaller-scale sequels. Unlike the later games, music in Daggerfall was very dynamic and took into account the location, the time of day and the weather. Be it raining, snowing, nighttime, sunny daytime, in a shop, in the streets or in a crypt or a dungeon, there will be a distinct mood and soundtrack to go with that. Although the Skyrim soundtrack is solid and memorable and the Morrowind theme song is fantastic, Daggerfall’s soundtrack emits a strong sense of ambience wherever you go, when you go.

When walking through a foggy valley, or a treacherous dungeon, I felt a sense of something that few other games emit. The olden, unconventional art style, undiscovered attics in houses, strange hallways, and the unsettling “barks” you hear from monsters as you near them, sometimes before you know where they are, were chilling and immersive. I remember the haunted feeling I had when woken up from camping in the wilderness to find some sort of monster lurking in the darkness. Daggerfall expertly captures a unique atmosphere in the various regions, which changed noticeably depending on time of day or weather conditions. Daggerfall held the Guinness world record for largest seamless world available to a player in a land-based game — totalling well over 60,000 square miles, larger than the entire country of England, a record held for 15 years until Minecraft broke it. Featuring terrain such as mountains, forests, plains, tundra, deserts with HUNDREDS of cities, towns, castles, crypts, graveyards, temples, inns and dungeons.

It’s difficult to show you how immense the world of Daggerfall was, but just imagine that each colored dot in these maps represent an entire location, which could be a waystop you could breeze through in 15 minutes or it could be a sprawling city you could spend hours shopping, questing or talking to NPCs in. The options presented to the player were so vast that they weren’t all immediately available to the player at first. The game featured purchasable real estate in many of the cities, bank loans with interest and enforceable by imprisonment; faction and region-based reputation you had to manage and improve in order to gain access to exclusive perks and audiences with specific people. Countless groups, guilds and taverns you could wander through and interact with, looking for randomly generated quests or jobs.

You could buy horses (a decade before being reintroduced by The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion) as well as carts to lug around extra loot outdoors. You could even invest in your own ship to travel the seas faster with. The downright staggering amount of content in the game is unfortunately let down by the fact that much of the world was built with the help of procedural generation, with handmade tweaks done afterward.

This made much of the wilderness mundane and many of the dungeons eventually familiar to hardcore players of the dungeon designs. The game was way too big to explore on foot, so that unfortunately led to excessive use of Fast Travel. And most of the wilderness was empty of life, save for occasional encounters one would have when camping outside. It is claimed that there was a major disagreement on the direction of the next entry to the series, with the original creators including Julian LeFay wanting to go toward a more Rogue-like direction, with even more advanced procedurally-generated algorithms and sprawling worlds. After staff changes, structural shifts and the like, the next game Morrowind set the template to what Elder Scrolls games are now known for: contained, static worlds and quests that are much smaller than Daggerfall’s, but also more tailored and detailed.

One of Daggerfall’s most notorious features were its dungeons. To call them confusing, treacherous or dangerous would be an understatement. The looming threat each dungeon emits in the game is felt.

Around each corner could be nothing, it could be a measly rat, or it could be a dangerous archer, a gruesome Daedra or even an Elder Vampire. Daggerfall was one of the first games to introduce true 3D dungeons and maps, which showed how much of a death labyrinth some of these really were. There were many occasions where lack of forethought or readiness led to me venturing down into a horrific spiral of doom only to realize I was stuck down there and didn’t have the skills or resources to escape.

Though the unwary player could die easily in the starting dungeon — Privateer’s Hold, one would soon realize the depth, scale and complexity of the later ones, filled with surprise monsters, cursed objects that kill on touch, pitfalls to your death, or water traps filled with vicious Slaughterfish or even worse, vile Dreugh. With moving platforms, switches, twists, turns and dangers lurking around every corner, Daggerfall’s dungeons were a force to be reckoned with, and make future entries to the series seem like a cakewalk with lots of shortcuts and ways to escape. Danger was not only confined to crypts, graveyards and catacombs, but there were times where you would be confronted with guards when breaking the law, which would end up with a legion of soldiers yelling at you and giving you the option to surrender and spend time in prison or fight to the death. Monsters might sneak up on you during camping too, anything from a screeching bat, a howling atronach, or even a mighty dragonling. The sense of discovery was probably the most unique feature about this game.

Whereas you know that every single player has to walk through the first dungeon and exit the same door out of it, the rest is completely up to them. There is an astronomical number of paths you could go, so much so that the game’s story has to pursue the player instead, in the form of a letter pressed against your hand to guide you to the primary story path, rather than expecting you to head there yourself. The world’s scope was made even more daunting by the fact that most buildings in cities and many world map locations are unmarked until you ask around town or get intel from quest givers. Sometimes your instructions are vague (like would be in real life) such as “somewhere northeast of here”, other times, especially if you’re good at speaking to the class of person in question they might mark the place on your map.

There were also a barrage of neverending side quests that you could encounter. Much of these are randomly generated with different names, locations and scenarios. Across all the guilds, factions and NPCs that could give you quests, this essentially made the game uncompletable, where there were always things going on and tasks to be done across the 45 regions featured in the game. Daggerfall’s unique combination of massive content, the ambience of the regions and areas you explore, and the sheer open-endedness of the game creates an odd feeling — sometimes it seems like you are the only one to have ever explored this area, and due to the sheer number of them, and the randomized process in which many of these locations were created — who knows? You just might be. While Daggerfall had some major failings, features that weren’t fully integrated into the game, and used a notoriously buggy and unstable version of XnGine.

Twenty years of technological improvements such as fully polygonal worlds and physics engines, help make us forget the great accomplishments and innovations the now aged game got right: The unique atmosphere, gigantic world, sandbox-like gameplay, political and economic features, and the sense of discovering something brand new were its greatest triumphs, and as two decades of sequels, and other RPGs have shown, these features are quite hard to replicate. In terms of the Elder Scrolls series, the battle between static, linear design and randomized and mysterious generation still wages on, and the continuous pursuit of simplification of skills, character creation and dialogue edges closer and closer to being simply dumbed-down rather than streamlined. But being the fact that most of Daggerfall’s world and sprawling dungeons were created by and generated by algorithms that only just a couple of people built, I see no reason why an entire team of programmers and designers using modern technology couldn’t perfect the randomization and generation algorithms that Daggerfall NEARLY succeeded with. Perhaps a melding of modern engines, and a more open, hands-off approach, more abilities and a larger and more mysterious scope would breathe some life into the fairly stagnating Elder Scrolls formula that the last couple games have been settling into. So what are your thoughts? Have some other ideas or features from other Elder Scrolls games or other RPGs that could take the series in a fresh direction?

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